Rise of Rural Power
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Rise of Rural Power
Farmers fight for their rights and challenge traditional politics in post-war Canada
Burdened by large debt and high taxes, Canadian farmers decided it was time to defend their interests and change the political landscape of the country in post-WWI Canada.
Prairie farmers faced difficult time after the First World War when wheat prices fell by 60 per cent and costs rose due to increased mechanization. Pictured here, a steam-powered threshing machine. (National Archives of Canada,  PA-205822)
Prairie farmers faced difficult time after the First World War when wheat prices fell by 60 per cent and costs rose due to increased mechanization. Pictured here, a steam-powered threshing machine. (National Archives of Canada, PA-205822)

When the economic boom of the war years ended, farmers faced difficult times. Wheat prices fell by 60 per cent between 1920-1922 while farm costs rose Prairie farmers struggled with the cost of mechanization and had to pay heavy taxes to finance the construction of roads and schools needed to accommodate the influx of immigrants.

Agnes Macphail grew up on a farm in Grey County, Ontario.

"To farm is the most arduous and most poorly paid of all occupations ...farmers work 12 hours a day to feed people who work eight hours and still some people call that a square deal."

Canadian farmers were also angry and disillusioned with traditional politics in post-war Canada. They considered the established parties inherently corrupt, lead by city-born politicians indifferent to rural Canada. And farmers in Ontario and the West were still angry that the federal Conservatives had broken their promise not to send their sons to war.

Farmers - representing more than a third of the Canadian population decided they could create a better political alternative.

"We as farmers are downtrodden by every other class," said Henry Wise Wood, an Alberta farmer and activist. "We have groveled and been ground into the dirt; we are determined that this shall not be. We will organize for our protection; we will nourish ourselves and gain strength, and then we shall strike out in our might and overthrow our enemies."

Wood was leader of the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA), an organization formed in 1909 to promote the political and educational interests of farmers. Farm lobby groups, established in many provinces, became the core of new political parties.

The United Farmers of Ontario (UFO) was the first organization to enter the political fray. In 1919, it won the largest number of seats in the Ontario election and formed a coalition government with the Independent Labour Party.

Then the tide turned west.

In 1921, the UFA swept away the Liberals, winning a clear majority. Irene Parlby won a seat, becoming Albertas first woman cabinet minister, in a government dominated by politically inexperienced farmers. In Manitoba, the United Farmers party won the provincial election in 1922.

Now the farmers were ready to take their crusade onto the national stage.

The Progressive Party was formed in 1920 when Ontario and prairie farmers belonging to the Canadian Council of Agriculture united with dissident Liberals. The agrarian-based party was critical of the dominance of big business in Canada. One of its guiding principals was the co-operative movement, which favours businesses owned and managed by the people they serve.

The Party was also sharply critical of the Parliamentary system that requires MPs to vote along party lines.

The Progressive Party, with the support of farmers in Ontario and the West, won 65 seats in the 1921 federal election, enough to form the official opposition. The Liberals won the election but the Progressives had put an end to the dominance that the Liberals and Conservatives had enjoyed in Parliament for more than 50 years
Agnes Macphail ran as a candidate for the farmer-based Progressive Party in the 1921 federal election. She was the first woman elected to the House of Commons. (National Archives of Canada, C006908)
Agnes Macphail ran as a candidate for the farmer-based Progressive Party in the 1921 federal election. She was the first woman elected to the House of Commons. (National Archives of Canada, C006908)

Agnes Macphail ran as a candidate for the Progressives in Grey County, Ontario. She was the first woman elected to the House of Commons.

Despite its lightening success, the farmers' movement struggled to maintain its early momentum.

The United Farmers of Ontario was defeated in 1923 and declined steadily afterwards. Alberta's UFA ran the province until 1935 but it did not cope well with the Great Depression. The UFM had the most success in provincial politics, leading Manitoba until 1942.

The Progressives did not succeed well as a political party. The politicians failed to act cohesively partly because of their independent voting beliefs. Members also disagreed on how the party should evolve. The Progressives suffered serious political losses in the elections of 1925 and 1926.

However, Progressive ideas remained popular, especially on the prairies. A group of Progressives helped to organize the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation in 1932 (later the New Democratic Party).

In 1942, the Progressive premier of Manitoba, John Bracken, became leader of the federal Conservative Party. Bracken insisted that the party be called the Progressive Conservative Party, which has remained its name ever since.

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